“Strong, compact, ready” was the slogan announced on posters and spread throughout the country on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War.
The enchantment of this reality did little to help the citizens. Six days after the outbreak of the war, the government escaped from Warsaw, encouraging the civilians to leave the barricades and defend the capital.
Forgotten by all their neighbours, except Romania, Poland turned out to be alone. Western allies, France and Britain declared war on Germany but, in reality, did not take military action, explaining the lack of readiness. Bearing in mind this history lesson, it is worth considering whether today the situation would look different. Are we stronger, able to defend ourselves and, above all, if we are less lonely.
Certainly, the assessment of one’s own capabilities has not changed much, which was recently a bright World Cup 2018. After the superpower euphoria, supported by a powerful advertising stimulus, there is a rapid depression and a grappling. Voices of realists such as the head of PZPN Zbigniew Boniek, who unequivocally stated that we lost because we were simply weaker, are rare.
I am afraid that the same applies to the assessment of the condition of the Polish army. After almost three years of PiS rule, the only point made of the pompously announced program for the modernisation of Polish armed forces is the purchase of aircraft for Vipas.
The most expensive armament defence system in the history of defence purchases will be ready in the best scenario in the middle of the next decade and, according to plans, it may be enough to defend half of the territory of Warsaw. It is not worth mentioning about other purchases (helicopters) and the capabilities of the domestic armaments industry.
According to various defence game scenarios, a Russian invasion of the Baltic states would take up to 12 hours. The occupation of Poland would probably take longer, but it cannot be ruled out that, like in 1939, the escape of the government from Warsaw would follow six days into the war.
What favourably distinguishes the strategic situation of Poland today compared to 1939 is a different geopolitical context. We are a member of NATO and the EU, Germany is democratic and pacifist, the US is the guarantor of Europe’s security.
That’s all true but unfortunately the geopolitical dynamics are changing to our disadvantage recently. Two trends are the most unlikely – firstly, the aggressive attitude of Russia supported by powerful investments in armaments and, secondly, the reversal of support from the US towards Europe, visible for a long time but gaining more momentum in the Trump era. In this situation, it is worth taking note of who are friends are and whom we can count on.
Unfortunately, today’s assessment of our alliances is beginning to resemble the situations of 1939. As you know, the foreign policy of the Third Republic of Poland is based on three types of alliances.
Firstly, our membership in the EU, which is the most integrated regional alliance in the world. Secondly, our membership in NATO, and thirdly our good relationships with the remaining countries of Central Europe and our close neighbours in general. In each of these pillars, we are now dealing with weakening of our position and allegiance, a very dangerous trend for the growing loneliness of Poland.
Loneliness in the Union
Membership in the EU was a geopolitical fulfilment of the dreams for generations of Poles. Raised under the grim and sad communist regime, we have experienced a democratic transformation and dreamt about life in a normal world, which we knew from tourism and films.
Almost 80% of Poles voting in the accession referendum for membership in 2003 were guided mainly by the promise of a civilizational leap, but geopolitical aspects also played a significant role – the return to Europe and joining a club of democratically developed and cooperating states.
Today, after 14 years of functioning in the EU, our period of emotional fascination has ended. We already know that the EU is not perfect. We, in turn, earned the opinion of a difficult and demanding partner.
It is obvious that such a relationship is constantly evolving. The optimistic variant could now be the transition to a more mature relationship in which we are aware of our flaws and work together on them. In the pessimistic variant, our positions become hardened, mutual accusations are accompanied by the conviction of their own infallibility and, consequently, towards separation or even divorce.
We have been implementing a pessimistic variant since 2015. Poland under PiS rule adopted the attitude of a partner who is openly dissatisfied with the relationship. This is, of course, a bad attitude that distinguishes any relationship, in addition totally unrealistic in this case.
As President Lech Kaczyński used to say, the EU does not consist of Poland alone. Poland is only one of the 28 Member States, is not a champion in the EU and is the largest beneficiary and not a net contributor to the EU budget. Thus, Polish claims and frustration have a rather moderate influence on the Union, and many of Warsaw’s reluctant members point to this attitude as evidence that accepting us in the EU was a mistake. It is a perspective increasingly shared by Western European societies that have never enthusiastically endorsed the idea of eastern enlargement.
While Poland is increasingly insulting to the Union, the latter is increasingly leaving Poland by simply evolving various speeds of integration. Warsaw evidently came out of the assumption that the Union must listen to it, and that its voice will be taken into account.
In theory, the Union should have a problem if one of the Member States is evidently on a perch. However, the current coping mechanism for such a situation has been exemplified by Brexit. European integration was moving forward, only now with the omission of London. The EU adopted the single currency and abolished internal borders, and the United Kingdom itself has been excluded from these initiatives. The method would seem pragmatic, which as we know today, however, ended with Brexit.
The situation with Poland is now even more radical because it is not Warsaw that decides to exclude itself from EU initiatives, but is simply omitted and excluded by others.
Recently, Warsaw has been left out of two major EU initiatives in which it should be first in line. Last summer, an informal summit of countries interested in cooperation in the field of EU border protection and migration took place. The meeting was attended by 16 Member States, but Poland was not invited. It should be at least disturbing for Warsaw because after all Poland is responsible for protecting the longest land border in the Union, and Warsaw is the headquarters of Frontex, the EU agency responsible for border protection. Warsaw has simply been boycotted due to the lack of solidarity regarding the reception of refugees and the attitude of the government that is perceived in the EU as simply xenophobic. Recently, Poland was one of the six largest member states coordinating issues of internal security and border surveillance. Today it is even excluded from a much larger group and deprived of the right to vote in a matter in which we should have a lot to make.
The second major project is the European Intervention Initiative, established by Paris. The initiative is attended by 9 Member States, including Great Britain and even Estonia, but again without Poland. Poland is the sixth largest military force in the EU, we spend little less on defence than the richer and more populous Spain.
Until 2015, Poland was in the vanguard of EU defence initiatives, proposing together with Germany and France a project for the development of European defence capabilities. In 2016, Berlin and Paris proposed a joint initiative, as a result of which the European Defence Fund was established, without the participation of Warsaw. Today, an elite and larger initiative is being created in which even the United Kingdom that comes out of the EU is participating, and Poland, once again, has not been invited due to the assessment of the rule of law in our country and the generally unconstructive attitude.
These initiatives are important although both are external to the official EU structures. The proposal for a separate budget for the eurozone countries is officially supported by Paris and Berlin, which is even more dangerous for Warsaw.
After the period of deep crisis in the EU caused by issues surrounding Greek bankruptcy, the EU is rearranging and reorganising. The decision-making centre on EU economic affairs is already in the club of countries using the euro – which was a considerable enough stimulus for the Baltic states and Slovakia to quickly adopt the currency.
The new proposal seeks to legitimise this stance and to establish a de facto Union of states using the euro as a separate uniting element within the European Union. We, of course, will not belong to this group and the financial losses will be very measurable.
We already know that in the next EU budget Poland will get 30 billion euro less than in the one that the previous government won. It can be even worse if the proposal to link payments from the budget with the assessment of the rule of law is accepted. As you know, the European Commission and most of the Member States critically assess the state of the rule of law in Poland. Hence, there may be a complete suspension of budgetary payments for Poland.
Poland is already lonely in the European Union today. There are many indications that with time our loneliness will deepen. It must be clearly stated that while maintaining the current dynamics, there is now a real danger of our roads diverging.
A cold shoulder from the USA
Among Polish critics of relations with the EU, there is a belief that Brussels’s reluctance is balanced by excellent relations with the U.S. As the EU knows, there are no special military capabilities, so there is a perception that when it comes to the security of the country, the US is the most important for us.
As is well known, since 2017 there are about 2,500 American soldiers in Poland as part of the presence of the North Atlantic Alliance. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, distinguished Poland by choosing Warsaw as the place for his first major speech devoted to international affairs.
We are dealing with a clear cooling on the Washington-Warsaw line. This is for two fundamental reasons. First of all, President Trump is not focused on Europe, but he obviously wants good relations with Russia. Secondly, Poland has greatly damaged its reputation with the amendment to the Act on the IPN, which is perceived in the US as anti-Semitic and violates the principle of freedom of expression.
Naturally, the presence of US soldiers in Poland is very important from the point of view of the security of the country, especially in the face of growing threat from Russia. However, let us remind you that the creation of this possibility was taken care of by the previous Polish government and agreed to it and appealed to Congress for financial resources on the eastern flank of former US President Barack Obama.
Trump’s merit is that he did not reverse this decision, but he did not create it and nor did foster its implementation. It would be a merit of the PiS government to increase the presence of US troops and transform the current rotational presence into a permanent one – in other words, establishing US bases in Poland. Such a proposal came from the Polish Ministry of National Defence, but it met with a very bad reception in NATO – which was not previously notified of it – and in the USA itself. Even the former US Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Europe, General Hodges, was against this proposal – who is known for his sensitivity to Polish arguments.
The establishment of permanent US bases in Poland would be in conflict with the agreement signed by NATO and Russia in 1997. Of course, the agreement was signed under completely different strategic conditions, and in the 1990s Russia was considered a partner rather than a NATO competitor.
But moving away from this agreement would require the consent of all NATO member states and clear leadership on the US side. Currently none of these conditions is fulfilled, even with the enticement of naming the base “Fort Trump”. European NATO members are looking for a way to reduce tensions with Russia not escalate them.
Trump, however, constantly speaks with admiration for Putin and evidently seeks opportunities to achieve a lasting breakthrough in relations with Moscow. The case of an agreement with North Korea, which includes the possibility of withdrawing 30,000 American soldiers from the Korean peninsula, shows that Trump is willing to sacrifice the security of America’s closest allies to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough and to sign up in the pages of history.
Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the American military presence, even in its current rotational shape, will be sacrificed, for the sake of greater agreement between Trump and Putin. As usual, the voice of Warsaw will simply not be taken into account when negotiating a larger agreement between Russia and the USA.
Warsaw’s arguments are not reinforced by the disastrous opinion of Congress and a large part of the State Department. Known for its liberal tendencies, the State Department has long criticised the issue of the rule of law and the freedom of speech in Poland after 2015. Until now, the Trump administration has largely ignored these voices, but the situation changed after the Sejm adopted the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. Since 1945, the American Congress and all presidential administrations have been uniquely pro-Israel and sensitive to the lies of the Holocaust. The use of the IPN is perceived in the US as a limiting discussion on the participation of Poles in the extermination of Jews and in effect promoting a false version of history. By pursuing this law, Warsaw managed to unite trumpnians, conservatives, liberals and pro-Israel lobbies in perceiving Poland as an immature country, unable to engage in an open discussion about its own history. Already today, this perception harms Polish diplomacy, which has lost access to the main decision-making centres in Washington. In the future, one should take into account the reluctance of Congress to continue financing the American military presence in Poland.
Loneliness in the region
When coming to power, PiS proclaimed the need to change Poland’s foreign policy – moving away from promoting participation in the mainstream of the EU and focusing on Central and Eastern Europe.
Soon there were loud announcements of establishing inter-regional and later “three-sea” initiatives. Today, we know that in fact Poland has exited from the main stage of Europe and is quarrelling with the most important members of the EU, but at the same time, there has been little said about the creation of an alternative tri-sea block, not to mention the Polish leadership in East-Central Europe.
In comparison with the situation from before 2015, Poland has somehow bypassed Hungary and now has worse relations with all countries of the region, and regional integration in Central and Eastern Europe is a crisis.
The Visegrad Group, composed of Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia, is internally fragmented. On the one hand, there is an anti-liberal Polish-Hungarian axis, and on the other, Czechia and Slovakia, both of which want to avoid being identified with the lines being drawn by Budapest and Warsaw.
Slovakia is a member of the eurozone, and Czechia is painfully pragmatic while both countries gravitate towards Austria and are moving away from the Visegrad format. So too, both countries have economies closely related to Germany and seem won over by the President Macron, who is effectively building a region within the region that excludes Poland and Hungary.
The Baltic countries are bound to reach out to Scandinavia, and all of them already use the single currency. As members of the strictly integrated euro-club, the Baltic States strengthen the argument for greater EU accountability for their security. Attempts by Warsaw to draw the Baltics away from the European mainstream in this situation has a poor chance of success and would most likely result in the growing alienation of Warsaw in the Baltic region.
The country that is slowly occupying the vacancy left by Poland as the region’s leader is now Romania. Bucharest can boast great economic results and has the largest US military presence in the region while, at the same time, maintaining the most pro-European. Romania has started formal preparations for the adoption of the single currency, which is due to become effective no later than 2024. In contrast to Poland, Romania is gathering more and more friends around the region.
Lonely since 1939
The international situation is not as dramatic as it was in 1939. Nevertheless, geopolitical tendencies are not favourable for Poland. After 1945, Europe’s security was based on the involvement of the USA, which is currently changing.
In 1975, 280,000 American soldiers were stationed in Europe, currently it is below 30,000. The US president clearly does not like Europe and has just started a mutually destructive trade war with the use of prohibitive tariffs. In the US, there is growing indifference towards Europe and the conviction of the need to focus on other regions of the world.
At the same time, the military and global reach of Russia is growing, which does not hide that it is heading to change the post-Cold War world order. Ten years ago, Russia was not in the Middle East and Crimea was part of Ukraine. Today, Russia has more troops in Syria than the US, and its influence is growing throughout the Middle East. Donald Trump has recently signalled that the world should come to terms with the Russian annexation of Crimea. The question with which the expansion of Russia will have to reconcile the world in ten years remains open.
In this situation, Warsaw should particularly push for a strong Europe and to have a considerable position in the region. Unfortunately, the current foreign policy pursued by Warsaw is heading in the opposite direction.
The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Polish in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.
Marcin Zaborowski is a Senior Associate at Visegrad/Insight.